For most of her young life, volleyball player Bree Sproule has been a rarity in the small community of Oyama.
She’s the only deaf person in Oyama, the northern-most point of Lake Country. She was the only deaf player on her school and club volleyball teams and the only deaf kid of six siblings, born and raised in Oyama.
But over the past year Sproule, 19, has been hanging with people much like her. She has completed her first year at Gaulladet University in Washington, DC, the world’s only university specifically for deaf people where she was a member of the women’s volleyball team.
And last week she departed with 10 other deaf volleyball players as part of Team Canada that will take part in the 22nd Deaflympics in Sofia, Bulgaria. Close to 4,000 deaf people from 84 countries will be competing.
“It’s really exciting, I’ve never been to Europe before,” said Sproule through her interpreter, her sister Brooke. “It’s going to be a new experience for me. I’m really excited to see the different culture and to learn about the history. It’s going to be really fun to be with the team because we are all going to be together and there is going to be a lot of deaf people there.”
Sproule was born with no hearing and was a perfect candidate for a choclear implant which can restore partial hearing. However given the choice herself, Sproule decided to accept that fact she was deaf and communicate using sign language.
It didn’t make her trip through school any easier as she battled not only her inability to communicate using her voice but also some people’s perceptions of just what she could accomplish.
“In the beginning it was really hard,” she said using sign language. “There was a lot of criticism of deaf people and how we couldn’t do things, even in school. But there are a lot of different things that I have done. There are a lot of successful deaf people and I had to prove myself. For me I just felt the same as everyone else. Now (at deaf university) it’s really cool because I can get a good education in my first language.”
Sproule definitely didn’t let her lack of hearing keep her from taking part in activities at school. She started playing volleyball in Grade 8 and her skill soon took over and she became an integral part of George Elliot’s girls volleyball team. By the age of 14 she had made the Team Canada’s women’s deaf volleyball team and she also continued to play other sports like basketball and soccer.
Being a setter on her high school team, Sproule and her teammates developed a unique language all on their own.
“Most of my friends know how to sign because I have been teaching them and in school I had an interpreter,” she said. “But on the floor I couldn’t have an interpreter so we used hand signals or numbers to communicate what type of set and then we would practice them often. Sometimes there was mis-communication but mostly it was smooth.”
At the Deaflympics, Sproule is looking forward to competing with and against other athletes who are in the same situation. Interestingly North American sign language differs from sign language used in Europe so Sproule and her teammates will be able to communicate without giving away strategy. But it will also make it a challenge to sign with other people she meets from Europe.
“North American sign language is not universal,” she said. “Just as a speaking person would we will have use a lot of gestures to communicate. But it’s going to be good because we can keep our plays coded and they won’t know what they are.”
Sproule said deaf volleyball teams in Europe have been playing together much longer than in Canada, where the program is relatively new, having been together for about five years. She says the competition will be stiff but she’s looking forward to the challenge.
“I’m really nervous about competing against the other teams because the European teams and Ukrainian teams are really strong,” she said. “In Europe they get paid to play and paid to go to school so they are at a high level. Canada has a newer team but we are going to try our best. I’m not nervous about communicating because deaf people use a lot of gestures and visual language and there is a world sign language that is more of a simple form of sign language that everyone will know.”
Sproule is one of just seven deaf athletes from B.C. that are a part of Team Canada taking part in the Deaflympics which will take place July 25 to Aug. 5 in Bulgaria. Once she completes her event she is heading back to Washington for her second year of university where she hopes to become a social worker and eventually work with deaf kids in small communities.